“Eternal Life: A Novel”by Leorah Gavidor March 28, 2018
“EternalLife: the more you live, the less you learn.” This Twitter post by one of her characters seems to be the central theme of Dara Horn’s new novel, Eternal Life. The story is of Rachel, a young mother who trades her mortality for the life of her infant during Roman times in Jerusalem.
Rachel strikes a deal with the high priest — who also happens to be the father of her illicit lover, (who is the father of her child, though she is married to another man.) The book spans time from 2,000 years ago to now, alive with details of daily life in ancient times as vivid as the present.
In an early scene, Rachel, daughter of a scribe, is delivering scrolls to the temple. When she meets Elazar, the man who will change her life, Horn brings the reader into the moment, transporting us instantly to Rachel’s world.
“The priest was silent for a moment. She looked down at his feet, clean hairy skin beside her dirty toes.”
The comparison grounds the scene in the time and place in which it’s set, yet transcends the ages with the humanity of the gesture: ancient times or modern, people look intently at their feet when they are uncertain what to do.
This is Horn’s strength: poignancy rendered from mundane detail. The minutiae are what matter.
In a scene set in current times, Rachel’s adult son Rocky and his girlfriend Meirav make smoothies in her kitchen while she leans in the doorway. Of course they are oblivious to her plight. Rocky doubts the virtues of the smoothie, claiming that “pre-masticating” the ingredients is like “outsourcing your stomach’s job to a machine.” He opines that it encourages giving up one’s bodily functions until there’s nothing left to do but die.
“Enjoy the taste of mortality,” Rocky chides sarcastically as his girlfriend sips her concoction. Little do they know how agonizing a moment it is for Rachel, who longs for her own death.
The forbidden love story between young Rachel and Elazar is exhilarating at first: they meet clandestinely in a water tunnel at the city’s wall, where they continue to see each other after each obliges an arranged marriage to someone else. Many years later, after the son they saved has lived a long life and died, and the temple is destroyed, and each of them has had other spouses and children, they find each other again. But they cannot conceive a child together, and Rachel becomes restless after decades with no children. Her ungratefulness, for the lives she has brought into the world and Elazar’s devotion to her, is exasperating.
“It isn’t because of the children,” Rachel tells Elazar one night next to the Euphrates as she prepares to leave him. Elazar doesn’t trust that statement; her subsequent actions prove him right.
She goes on to burn herself alive — that’s how she starts over — and in the next “version,” as she calls it, has more children with another husband, and so on. Rachel’s constant need to have children seems selfish: though she has lived for centuries and had dozens of children, she repeats motherhood because she wants to see things grow and change. The author does not address the entitlement of her character to bring new children into the world that she must deceive in order to protect her secrets.
At one point, in the novel’s present time, Rachel does reflect on the constant mistakes of motherhood.
“Why did thousands of years of being a mother do absolutely nothing to help her avoid these mistakes?” Rachel wonders after she inadvertently reveals her son’s whereabouts to someone she finds suspicious. But, frustratingly, like many mortals (including myself), her introspection doesn’t lead to change. She wants to begin anew without lying, she thinks to herself when meeting yet another man who will be her husband, yet she sits on the couch in their apartment and searches her phone for signs of Elazar on social media while her husband runs errands and her baby nurses. Rachel is doomed to repeat her mistakes. Α
Author Dara Horn will hold a reading and signing of “Eternal Life: A Novel” at the JCC on April 17.